University of life

Black and white photo of a young Richard Branson as a student reading
Image from
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 4 December 2019

It was a pleasure to share some thoughts on why we need to reimagine education with a video message at the OECD Forum for World Education in Paris. I may not be the most obvious choice to address an international education conference – as I’ve often said, formal schooling wasn’t really for me. I dropped out at age 15, frustrated and demoralised by what I thought was a pointless and inflexible approach to learning.

Richard Branson on a video screen at the front of a room. The audience is looking at him, with their backs to the camera
Image from Kami White

As a dyslexic, I struggled enormously. Creativity, spontaneity and lateral thinking – the things I had always considered strengths – were choked and suppressed. My self-esteem suffered, as did the self-esteem of thousands in my generation, I imagine. 

Building confidence, often described as a hallmark of British education, was for the few. It certainly wasn’t for the lad from Oxfordshire who struggled to read and write. So I packed my bags to explore what I called the university of life. And I’ve never looked back. 

What followed is the Virgin story – a story of risks taken, of failures embraced and certainly a story of learning as you go. My own journey in business and that of many others I’ve come to know over the years has made me wonder: if we could fall through the grid and succeed nonetheless, just how many other talented, driven and smart kids must have fallen through as well, but perhaps lacked the support and the right circumstances to ever live up to their true potential? 

Black and white photo of Richard Branson dressed as a pilot holding Holly Branson in front of a Virgin plane

I have a feeling the number is very high. Unacceptably high. Because sadly, the obsession with just-in-time performance, exam results and absorption of facts continues to be the norm of education systems in many parts of the world - at a very high cost to societies.  

I feel we should all strive to reimagine education as a fluid and flexible approach to lifelong learning - one that builds on individual needs and talents, and stimulates, nourishes and celebrates our potential to flourish. It was great to hear from Valerie Hannon from the Innovation Unit speak to young World Skills champions about their experience of vocational education and finding their passions. Big Change, the education charity co-founded by Holly, partnered with the Innovation Unit to publish their Reimagining Education Together report and have also recently set out their 10 hopes for education, which show the areas we need to focus on.

'10 big hopes for change in education' image details each of the 10 hopes
Image from Big Change

Some may think of education as being all about accumulating knowledge and gaining experience. But it’s just as much about building mindsets. What would education be like if we focused on a broader view of success. Success also means whether we have really mastered different skills, achieved meaning, been inclusive and made an impact in the world. 

All of us are born with certain gifts. To me, the best education is the one that helps us find and grow our talents in a way that fills us with joy and makes us all want to keep learning. That’s what school should be all about. Life can cover much of the rest. 

Head over to Big Change to find out our more about their hopes for education and to Made By Dyslexia to learn about their mission to support every child with dyslexia.